Note: The Native American tribe and their history and traditions in this book are fictional, specifically tailored just for my "eerie county" (though some of the language and rituals used may be similar to other area tribes).
Troy Mulvaney waited for just the right moment in the Christian camp youth leader's boring lesson to gesture to his best friends Sam Holt, Danny Yanzer, and Roger Rowlee. Since they were at the back of their hiking line, slipping behind a couple of massive oak trees just off the well-traversed trail unnoticed was easy as pie. Troy grinned while the others held their breath, waiting to be caught instantly. He knew when old Long-winded Larry got going on one of his favorite nature monologues, he wouldn't notice much of anything around him. For a good mile or two, the old guy wouldn't realize his caboose had detached. By then, we'll be long gone.
Troy got down to business. As soon as the coast was clear, he led his friends through the dense brush, foliage, and deepening snow toward Bloodmoon Mountain. He took the first step onto the steep hill. Instantly, Roger Rowlee's protest came. "No way, Vaney. Even if the park was open, you know how the ranger rags on about 'backcountry permits' and the buddy system. He's as bad as Larry."
Roger paused as they all remembered that the park ranger David Kotter had died just before winter hit last year. Bloodmoon Cove Park had been closed ever since, but the sheriff had issued a statement in front of the whole youth camp that no one without authorization was allowed near the mountain. Besides, everybody in Bloodmoon Cove knew that the weather, even in May, was unpredictable at best, deadly at worst.
Grimacing, Troy had anticipated wuss attitudes out of his pals. He held out his hand, saying loftily, "That's 'cause most people don't got reliable GPS. We do. Holt, that fancy compass of yours."
With his starkly white, freckled face and his lightning-shocked red hair, Sam's blue eyes looked like giant saucers fixed in his twerpy little head. Normally, Troy would have laughed himself silly at the bird-like sight. Not today. Today, he had a mission.
"Come on, come on. We don't got much time, butt-wipe. Larry's gonna notice we're gone soon enough. Now hand it over."
"But...my grandpa... My birthday..." Sam was just barely whispering now, reluctant to give up the thing he'd been wishing for diligently for the past year. Yet he was digging in his pack as he spoke. When he finally pulled the holy grail of birthday presents out, cradling it reverently in his hands, Troy plucked it unceremoniously out and got to work programming the thing. Sam was moaning and whining the whole time. Troy knew what he was doing. He'd seen his friend punch coordinates into it a dozen times since he showed them the expensive unit.
As soon as the electronic compass was ready to lead the way, Troy started in the direction it indicated.
"Where are we goin'?" Roger demanded, sounding just the way Troy expected. In a second the girl would start begging to turn back. Danny'd stand up for him, and this whole operation would fall apart.
"How many times I gotta tell ya? Trust me. This is gonna blow your mind."
"Okay, so where, douche?" Danny Yanzer took up the defense, even knowing he could never win against Troy's sheer determination.
"You wusses ever hear of the legend of Harrity Scaritty?"
Still plowing forward, Troy couldn't resist glancing away from the electronic compass to catch the looks of shock and fear on his friends' faces. Oh yeah, somehow that reaction just makes it all worthwhile.
You couldn't live in Erie County without hearing the legend. Whoever named the counties in Wisconsin had named this one appropriately, only they'd spelled it wrong. Should've been Eerie County. And Bloodmoon Cove, a tiny town smack-dab in the middle of it, received the full concentration of eeriness. The legend of Harrity Scaritty was just one of many supposedly urban legends come to life here.
"What does that got anything to do with where we're goin'?" Danny demanded, trying to sound bored. But he'd stopped walking, as did the rest of them.
"I mean, have you really ever heard the true story of it?"
"True story?" Sam asked in a small, mouse voice.
"Look, we got a long hike, boyos, so let me tell it to you on the way. Trust me, you're gonna love this. Most righteous thing ever." When Troy turned and started leading the way again, his friends reluctantly followed.
"Wait a minute, Vaney," Roger started, "we're not goin' up the mountain, are we? How far? This time-a year, dude..." He was shaking his head while both Sam and Danny looked like they were about to crap their pants.
Troy knew this trek was dangerous. He knew the sheriff hadn't forbidden anyone from stepping foot on the mountain only because they didn't have a fancy compass. Early May was a bad time of year to be trying this out, though there were certainly worse times. Even in May, a freak blizzard could descend out of the proverbial clear blue sky. Today was a clear day, too. Not so much as a snowflake in sight. Yeah, the snow got worse the higher up in elevation they went, and the temperature dropped with every step they took. But this would totally be worth it. This weekend, his dad had finally told him the whole story, the fact from the legend. Troy had been begging him for years because Troy couldn't have failed to notice that the legend included a guy with their same last name. In a small town like Bloodmoon Cove, there probably were only a handful of different families. A dude with the same last name was family here, no two ways about it. Even without the identical surname, most everybody in these parts was related one way or another.
His old man hadn't wanted to tell him anything, but Troy had ways of making his enemies talk, and somehow his prodigious skills had worked on his dad, too. Even after he'd told him everything, his father had warned, "That cave ain't no place for a twelve-year-old. You hear me? No place for a grown man. You stay away from there. The cave hides when it doesn't wanna be found. Reveals itself when it does. You listenin' to me, Troy? You and your friends stay away 'cause you don't wanna be around when that hell-hole reveals itself."
Why? Troy had wondered. 'Cause you believe the legend is true? The one about Harrity Scaritty and his demon dog? Does it scare you?
Grinning at the memory of his big, tough father scared, Troy looked at the compass again, then adjusted his course slightly. He recognized that they were heading for Spirit Peak--the most remote high point outcropping on the mountain. His old man had told him there was a gorge near there that was, most of the time, a dead zone...without coordinates. But sometimes...sometimes the gorge wanted to be found.
"Come on," Troy urged, realizing that he was losing his pals. Because of that, he made his voice slightly begging. He knew they'd respond to that. Plus, if he kept talking and told them all his old man had revealed to him, they wouldn't be able to turn back, just like he'd known he couldn't when he decided to see if the legend was true. "I said I'd tell ya everything on the way. So the legend of Harrity Kotter is a hundred years old. A hundred years since all this happened. But that's not all that long ago. My great-great-great granddad, Dennis Mulvaney, was alive when Harrity Kotter was. So my old man told me, all his life Harrity Kotter was a wuss and somebody had to make sure he knew it. Dennis knew how to take care of business--him and his pals. So easy to take poor wittle Harrity's lunch money every day. So easy to come up with a reason to beat him silly most every day. Torment was the name of the game, but the guy just didn't get it. He never changed or toughened up. He was all nature and wildlife and flowers." Troy sing-songed the words, then spit, "A regular Johnny Appleseed. Harrity's family owned the Bloodmoon Cove Park--that's the way it'd always been, and you might say Harrity was one with nature there, as park ranger after the self-induced hell of his school years. He took his German Shepherd with him all the time, wherever he went, and he named the mutt Charles. Can you believe that? He treated it like it was a real person, like a brother. That dog was with him every second of every minute of every day of his life. Used to drive poor old Dennis crazy, seein' Harrity communin' with nature and all, whistlin' with the birds and cleanin' house with squirrels and deer."
Danny started to talk, and Troy cut him off abruptly. "Shut up, Dumbo, and let me tell this." Troy tried not to notice how short his breath was. The steepness of the slope was getting extreme and the cold made every inhale painful. "So Harrity gets married when he's practically an old man, and him and the wife have a son, and they all live together in the host house at the campground at Bloodmoon Cove Park. Halloween night, Dennis decided it was time he and his buds had their own camping trip out at the park. They all got drunk, and Dennis decided to have some fun with the noble Charles. Wasn't easy luring the dog away from its master, but the sound of his dog howlin' got Harrity out to the campground real quick. Dennis and his friends tied the dog up between the trees and..." Troy stopped abruptly and glanced back at all his wide-eyed, halted friends. "Okay, guys, this part ain't gonna be pretty. Dennis was a pretty nasty dude and his friends would go along with anything he wanted."
Not liking the terrified yet strangely guilty expressions on their faces, Troy looked away to check the electronic compass. He started back on course, making another slight adjustment in their heading. The trail was getting rougher and harder to climb because the path was so steep.
"Anyway, so they were teasing the dog, and Harrity tried to defend him, but one of the guys held him so he couldn't do anything to rescue Charles. Wouldn't let Harrity look away either. Dennis slit the dog open from one end to the other with his hunting knife. Harrity started screaming, but Dennis wasn't done. He was seriously trashed, and he felt like he'd waited all his life to end this. So he and his friends took Harrity up Bloodmoon Mountain to a cave Dennis knew about. He'd found it during one of the hiking trips the youth camp took in the summer. The entrance to the cave was hidden behind a waterfall off some trail in the gorge near Spirit Peak. Legend has it that this entrance leads to the realm of the dead--the place where evil spirits live. The Mino-Miskwi Native Americans found it first, long ago, and they hid it with a man-made waterfall to cover it--to keep it sacred ground, you know, for their rituals. Whenever they went back, they'd find large and small animal bones and sometimes even human remains at the entrance. Nothing lives or grows in that gorge. There aren't any birds or insects or flowers or plants anywhere near it. No crickets chirping, no birds nesting or flying nearby, no mosquitoes or gnats buzzing around."
"What'd they do to Harrity?" Roger asked, his throat sounding parched.
"Well, they found the cave, knew it was the one 'cause of all the bones... and they threw Harrity into it. Then they blocked it up with rocks and got outta Dodge. My dad told me when Dennis and his friends sobered up the next day, they remembered what they did but figured Harrity already escaped their little trap. They waited to catch a glimpse of the dude for days afterward, but they didn't go back to the cave even when people were talkin' about where Harrity disappeared to. His wife was gettin' worried, you know. Nobody ever found the cave, and even a couple weeks later when Dennis and his friends went back, they couldn't find that cave again, no matter how hard or where they looked. The Mino-Miskwi Indians say sometimes the cave wants to stay hidden. But, to this day, you can still hear Harrity shrieking and wailing and howling for miles around at night. You can hear him calling for his dog, grievin' for it. Halloween night is the worst, they say."
"That dog's in the park," Danny said softly, directly behind Troy. He stopped to look at him. The mad bomber hat he always wore stuck out where his big ears emerged from the sides of his head--he couldn't cover his ears up if he tried. "My mom and my uncle've seen it."
Pushing his glasses up his nose, Roger was nodding, always eager to agree with anything Danny said or did. "My family, too."
Sam's eyes were as big as an alien's.
"The ghost dog roams the park and the mountain, defending its master's remains."
"That where we're goin', Vaney?" Danny asked. "So how'd you find out where the cave is?"
"My granddad found it a couple years ago--after his dad told him the story. He wrote down the coordinates. And then he got the heck outta there 'cause he said there was something bad in that place. Bad blood, like the Mino-Miskwi say."
"How'd he know it was the right cave?" Sam asked.
"I told you, douche bag. No birds or bugs or plants, piles of bones all around. Don't you know the chant?"
All three of them looked stark scared, but they said it together as one anyway: "Harrity Scaritty, on the mountain-side, in the realm of the dead, how will you escape, how will you be fed? With the living and the undead."
"As long as no one removes the rocks that block up that cave..." Troy said in the same hushed voice his old man had used, "as long as they don't let Harrity out, he'll stay with the dead, the undead, in the realm of evil spirits."
Sam, Roger and Danny weren't breathing as they listened to him. Troy became aware of how cold he was, how icy the wind had become as they closed in on their destination. He swallowed the lump in his own throat.
Nah. He didn't believe any of this hokum. His old man was cracked. He'd told him not to come here, not to do anything to disturb that grave. But it was a burial place, right? So only the dead could still be there. There were no such things as undead or evil spirits. "We could find the bones of Harrity Scaritty, you dip-wads!" he shouted, breaking the silence like an ice pick through a thin sheet of glass. "Don't you get it? How righteous would that be? We'd be famous."
"What do you mean?" Roger asked in his thin, wavery voice.
Danny punched him, making him jolt. "It's a legend, dude. An urban legend. We're not gonna find nothin' supernatural. We're just gonna freeze our shag-asses off. Come on, this is a waste of time."
"What're you, scared?" Troy smirked, challenging him--his only real barrier to doing this.
Sam's eyes were seconds away from falling right out of their sockets. Troy smacked him to get the stupid, so-scared-gonna-pee-my-pants expression off his face. "Come on, we're almost there."
He wasn't surprised they did the opposite of what he knew they wanted to: When he turned and headed back up the mountain, they followed behind quietly. Deep down, he knew they accepted this would be the coolest thing they'd ever done. Even still, Troy couldn't deny that, as they closed in on their destination, his chest was quaking and his freezing fingers were contradictorily slick with sweat. He handed the electronic compass back to Sam, who tucked it back into his pack. Troy pointed, "That's it there."
For long minutes, the four of them looked around the gorge as well as at the spot of the frozen waterfall in the gulch clearing not far from Spirit Peak. There was no sign of life here, not simply because of the cold. No birds flew near this place, no wildlife hibernated. Nothing grew, and even now that the spring thaw had begun to bring back some of the plants and insects, none could be seen or heard in this particular clearing. Was the opening of the spirit cave like some kind of Venus flytrap? It wasn't that nature didn't come here but that, if anything alive got too close, it was taken, snatched and swallowed whole--all but the bones? There was snow all over the clearing, but not in the space around that frozen waterfall.
"We gotta see if there are bones," Troy said, hoping his friends didn't hear the quavering in his voice.
"Uh-uh," Roger muttered under his breath.
He was looking around, and Troy couldn't help doing the same when he realized how dark it was getting and how fast. They were high up and he'd lost track of how long it'd taken to hike here, but it'd been early afternoon when Larry gathered the group for a quick hike in the park. How could it be this dark in the afternoon?
As if Sam was reading his mind, he said, "It's only two. There's gonna be bad weather. We gotta go."
"It's more than that, you choir boy," Danny refuted. "There's somethin' here."
Surprising Troy, Danny started toward the frozen waterfall intended to hide the entrance of the cave. No way. No way's he gettin' there before I do. This is my show. Troy pushed forward and passed Yanzer, saying, "Outta my way, Dumbo." With one hand, he reached into the inside pocket of his coat for the flashlight he'd been careful to pack, knowing it'd be too dark behind the waterfall to see anything. He switched on the strong, wide beam.
As he closed in on the waterfall, he saw a huge boulder nearby. There was something just behind it, jutting out slightly. On legs made of lead, Troy went to it despite not really wanting to see what it was. Slowing, he let the other guys catch up, and they approached as one. Danny swore, half screaming, when they saw the body. Troy waved his flashlight over it. The thing was still dressed, wearing a park ranger jacket just like the one worn at Bloodmoon Cove Park.
"Ranger Kotter," Sam said under his breath. "They never found his body last fall."
"Why does he look like that?" Roger asked, swallowing hard. "He looks all...well, chewed up."
"It's decay," Troy insisted.
But the others shook their heads. "No, he looks chewed on."
"Harrity Scaritty got hungry," Danny said. They all pounded on him for speaking the words out loud, though they were thinking the same thing. But Troy remembered what his dad had said: Harrity's ghost dog could pass freely through the stone, in and out of the cave. The dog brought his master food. After it rips off a chunk of meat preserved in the cold of the gorge, it takes it to Harrity?
"We oughta take his wallet just in case. So maybe they can find him later," Sam said.
The three of them watched their friend reach squeamishly around in the back pockets of the dead body to get out the wallet. Sam took it and tucked it into his pack. Then Troy turned toward the frozen waterfall. His friends followed, and he heard three gasps all around him. He only just kept himself from whimpering when he saw in his flashlight beam the face in the rocks blocking an obvious entrance into the cave. It didn't make any sense that it could be what it looked like, but the face was there nevertheless. It looked petrified in the rock, grotesque and horrifying. A sad face with giant, demon-black eyes...
On the ground below the face were piles and piles of bones all along the blocked entrance. Sam reached forward and picked up one of them. "Guys...this one's a human skull."
"How do you know?" Troy scoffed, shrugging. "Could be a monkey's."
"There's no monkeys in..."
"Try lookin' in the mirror." Troy swallowed with difficulty even after his smart-aleck remark.
Behind him Danny chanted as if he couldn't stop himself, "Harrity Scaritty, on the mountain-side, in the realm of the dead, how will you escape, how will you be fed? With the living and the undead."
"Come on, you pansies," Troy berated--himself as much as his scaredy-cat friends. He stepped forward and started pulling rocks away from the entrance with one hand, the other still holding his flashlight. Surprisingly, the three others helped him.
They'd only gotten a few off when a sound like a scream of deliverance, or vengeance, roared out of the small opening they'd made. All of them backed off, waiting in terror for something to happen. But nothing did. They looked at each other, mouths open as if preparing to scream. "It's been blocked up a long time," Sam told them rationally a moment later. "Probably...just...an air pocket or gas escaping or something. Probably."
An air pocket? Gas escaping? Troy almost laughed out loud, but he couldn't. He wanted either to be true. He couldn't believe what he was thinking. "You're a gas, douchebag." Faster you do this, faster you see them bones... the faster you can get the heck outta Dodge. Get going!
Troy stepped forward but not before seeing that the rocks they'd taken away had formed a kind of mouth in the creepy petrified face. A mouth opened wide to scream. He swallowed and started throwing rocks behind him willy-nilly to get rid of that screaming face until Danny yelled at him to take it easy. Troy wanted to get this over with.
As soon as they removed enough rocks to form an opening in the entrance, he said, "I'll look inside. See if there's a skeleton. If I find one, then you guys can look."
"We can leave then?" Roger said, never afraid to be the weakling.
I'm not gonna be the weakling. But even as Troy got down on his hands and knees, all he wanted to do was turn around and run from the clearing. He had to maneuver a little to get his upper body through the tight hole they'd made in the entrance, enough that one arm could slip in along with his head. He flashed the light beam around, painfully aware of the cold. The gorge was freezing, but in here... Man, it's like the Artic. Isn't the realm of the dead hell and hot? His breath came out in a thick, white fog in the pitch black space. Then his flashlight caught something. A mound. A skull. There. The skeleton, half buried in the ground... Harrity Scaritty.
Something white flashed in front of him and, just as abruptly, a dog started barking like mad. Troy jumped back, shrieking, but he quickly realized he was stuck in the too-small opening, all because he'd put his arm through so he could shine the flashlight inside. The white image stepped right into his light, and Troy cried out this time. The creature planted its huge paws between Troy and its master's remains. It's not real. It was a ghost dog. A salt-and-pepper German Shepherd. Charles, defending its master, its brother.
The silvery-transparent dog crouched, growling deep in its throat with its huge teeth bared. Troy shouted so loud, his friends behind him on the outside screamed, too. "Pull me out!" he cried frantically. "Pull me out now, you wusses!"
But the screams behind him were getting further away and he realized they'd run. Run away, scattered like spooked chickens. Sam, Roger and Danny were gone. They'd abandoned him to Harrity Scaritty and his demon ghost dog. I'm alone... But he wasn't thinking about revenge.
Troy tried to throw himself back, wiggling hard to get himself out of the hole, but the monster-dog was advancing, growling menacingly. Troy struck out with the flashlight, hitting nothing because the hellhound wasn't real, even as he continued his attempt to unwedge himself from the hole. Sharp animal bones dug into his lower half, but he didn't care. He had to get out.
The dog stopped his advance suddenly, became submissive, and Troy went rigid as the temperature dropped another twenty degrees at least. He was shivering violently, only partially from the chill. There was something building before him--a thick, black fog, ethereal and yet...tangible. It filled up the space between Troy and the dog and formed itself into the terrifying face--closed eyes even bigger than Sam's--he'd seen in the rocks not long ago. Petrified, horrible. Sad...
His flashlight went out, and the hair on Troy's neck stood at attention at the sound of harsh, ragged breathing in the silence. Then the fog was moving, shifting, dragging itself forward as it gasped for breath. But how can it breathe? Then the darkness emerged directly before him, the huge eyes opened, and they were filled with black demon smoke and unearthly fire. The mouth yawned wide directly in front of him, howling for revenge. There was evil in that face, in that ghostly shriek let loose like a plague of locusts spit straight from the mouth of hell. The demon face rushed at Troy and he could feel it against him, tearing its way against him, drilling into him as it tried to get free of the hole he was wedged into. Pure evil. And I let it out. I freed it, just like I promised my dad I wouldn't. He knew it was real. But he just didn't wanna believe it enough to convince me.
John Kotter couldn't imagine what it was that made people say you couldn't go home again. The knowledge that he'd said those very words himself ten years ago--and he'd said them, in many ways, as a vow--struck him as ironic now. He hadn't wanted to come back then. Oh, his intention hadn't been to abandon his parents and never see them again. More like I fully intended to abandon Bloodmoon Cove and the park I spent my life in...loving. I wanted to leave to escape the censure of the town's last memory of my selfish failure.
He'd been the happiest kid in the world, growing up in a park complete with a campground, living at the base of the most majestic mountain he'd ever laid eyes on. He and his cousin Twyla, who was six years younger than him, had been given free reign of the place. They'd gone everywhere, seen everything of their little piece of the world. Once upon a time, John had imagined himself taking over the campground when his dad retired. But then his dad's brother and his wife left with Twyla, John's best friend in the world. In the process, they'd done the unthinkable, what few had dared before in these parts. Folks didn't leave Bloodmoon Cove. They grew up, found employment usually in the family business, started a family, and life just went around and around like a circle.
John had imagined that same life for himself. When he was only seventeen, tragedy that he'd never, ever considered could happen did happen. His only recourse had seemed black-and-white to him. Leave Bloodmoon Cove and his dream of running the park like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. Make a life for himself anywhere else because he couldn't live here anymore where everyone looked at him with blame, accusation, anger.
So he'd left. Gone to a four-year-college and gotten his Bachelor's degree, specializing in natural resources, completed the Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program to become a law enforcement ranger, then he'd worked seasonally at the first national park that hired him in Arizona. He'd worked there for five years. He'd still be there now if fresh tragedy hadn't struck.
After a decade away, John Kotter was back in Bloodmoon Cove, back to the life he'd spent his entire childhood dreaming of until the dream turned sour and wrong. Only I never wanted to come back this way. I didn't want to end up running this place until Dad officially retired. But Dad's death put me in charge. There's no one else, and I can't just let this park die, too.
John drove toward his family legacy, Bloodmoon Cove Park, at first light on May third. Already, the day was shaping up to be overcast, freezing cold, and light snow blew with the promise of much more to come--a marked contrast to the absolutely gorgeous spring weather he and his mother had experienced yesterday afternoon. John, his mother and his grandfather had grilled out and spent most of the afternoon and evening in the backyard, soaking up the brilliant, warm sunshine. He wasn't surprised at the change today though. Weather conditions had always been volatile this close to the base of the mountain. Bloodmoon Cove's winter wouldn't end until, maybe, late June, and sometimes longer than that. When John was just a kid, his father, grandfather, and family friend and Mino-Miskwi tribal leader George Maulson had taught him to read the sky. They were in for a doozy of a blizzard and the bad weather would arrive soon. Even still, John had known he couldn't put this trip off much longer.
He made the turn, heading for the campground entrance. The wind grew fiercer, battering against his truck, trying to push the heavy-duty vehicle off the road. John frowned in surprise at the road ahead of him. He hadn't expected the two-mile-long driveway to be mostly plowed of snow. In truth, no one had been here since the camping season had ended abruptly last September, when his father disappeared, presumed dead. Would the county sheriff--the only law enforcement in Bloodmoon Cove--have sent someone to plow? Why? John couldn't say he and Graham "Gray" Mecham were close buddies. He and Gray got along, sure. But even mild friendship didn't warrant the amount of work it would take to plow out all these roads.
In the three weeks since John had quit his law enforcement ranger position in Arizona last October, trained his replacement, and wrapped up his life knowing he'd never leave Bloodmoon Cove again once he settled back here, he'd realized how few friends he actually had left in Bloodmoon Cove. Twyla had been gone for a long time. And the reason he'd left here, Cara-Marie's suicide...well, he'd alienated a lot of the people he thought were his friends with that situation. They blamed him for daring to consider a life for himself away from their hometown. Sometimes he even thought his mother harbored the same accusations toward him.
John shook his head, gazing around him in astonishment as he drove closer the park. He'd expected to see the place a wreck. For almost nine months, no one had been here to take care or "winterize" before the park abruptly closed for the season. His mother had done only what she had no choice to do in closing the place up: Hired someone to come in and pressurize the system at the well house, close the stop valves on the toilets, and turn off the water in the park restrooms. She couldn't have coped with more than that after losing her beloved husband.
John had come home to take over the park, fully expecting to have to hire someone to help him get the place back up to code. While his mom didn't want the family park to close indefinitely any more than her elderly father-in-law, Patrick, did, she knew she couldn't run the place herself. For one thing, she was a nurse at the teeny-tiny hospital in town and her services there were desperately needed. Besides, she was also a full-time, live-in nurse for Patrick. For another, she had a son in the park ranger business. So many generations of Kotters had run the park. John's father, David, had wanted him to be the next in line. When he'd come home for his father's funeral recently thinking he'd only be there for a few days, John had never considered saying no when his mother asked him to come home permanently and take over their family heritage.
On the passenger's side of the 4x4 park truck that'd belonged to John's father and had been passed down to him, his German Shepherd Robert barked when John slowed down before the gatehouse. All his life growing up here, his family had had dogs, but John hadn't gotten one when he moved away. He hadn't expected his father's dog to take to him so quickly. His mother had told him Robert had spent all this time grieving, barely eating since David was taken from him. Somehow, the German Shepherd saw John as an acceptable substitute for his long-time companion.
John put the truck into park, then jumped out, the dog on his heels, and moved to the barrier blocking the road. Beside it was the entrance station with huge panes of glass, a visitor's first stop into the park. The only other way in or out of the park was a service road that only employees were allowed to use.
Planting his feet on the ground to keep the icy wind from blowing him right over, John reached down to his belt. With his Under Armour acrylic hat crammed down around his ears, he managed to find the right key on the retractable key chain his father had worn on his belt for most of his life, then unlocked the padlock securing the thick chain around the barrier gate.
Robert was already exploring eagerly, so John unlocked the gatehouse. Inside the strangely immaculate campground office, he pressed the button to automatically open the gate barrier outside. He got back into his truck, drove through the open gate, then got back out leaving the vehicle door open. He closed the barrier and locked up the building on the way back out.
Despite the sun peeking occasionally through the clouds and snow, the day remained dark and foreboding. The wind was screaming like all the demons in hell were amassing at the portal. He was hoping to finish his assessment quickly so he could be back in town before the storm hit.
"Robert, come on," he called to his dog, "let's go check out the host house."
The dog obediently jumped back inside and took up vigil at his side. John paused only long enough to wipe down his seat, then drove slowly through the campground first, marveling at the condition of the park considering how long it'd been neglected. His mom had specifically told him she hadn't done anything that wasn't absolutely necessary. When he'd decided he needed to make a run out here to access the condition of the park, he'd brought along a tablet, expecting to compile a long list of things that needed to be done before the campground re-opened in early June. Sure, most everything was under a few inches of snow and therefore he couldn't know for certain what needed work, but someone had been taking care of this place. For one thing, all the roads were plowed. Additionally, the winterization his mother had willfully neglected last September looked done. He even found a compost pile at the edge of the small copse of trees around the side of the host house.
What in the world's going on here?
The campground house itself was another surprise. The two-story German log and stone structure was unusual with the logs exposed to the outside. John had always found the place charming and a little creepy because of that break from traditional German-built log-and-stone houses. Something about it looked unfinished and even mismatched. The symmetry was off somehow. The inside had everything anyone could need, of course, and it was comfortable. But someone had been here. The sidewalk leading up to the house had been shoveled recently. His second clue was that thick smoke wound its way out of the chimney, mostly blown apart by the wind but still noticeable. Long before winter, John and his dad had always been preparing the woodshed next to the house, filling it with wood that would last them through the winter. Since their family lived at the campground back then, they'd used the wood burning stove instead of electric heat that'd been put in by his grandfather. His mom had moved into a small rental house in town with Patrick after David went missing.
As John walked around the backyard of the house, he noticed someone had put the cover over the central air unit--something he knew for a fact his mother would never have thought to do. The grill and furniture on the back porch had also been secured with winter coverings. Plus, the exterior faucets had been wrapped.
Shaking his head, John walked back around to the front of the house warily, making his footsteps up to the porch light and soundless. He was relieved to be out of the wind flecked with ice shards that made his eyes water. The shrieking sound became muffled under the porch roof, thankfully.
He put a restraining hand on Robert's head, and the canine understood he was asking him not to bark or rush inside once the door was unlocked. When John closed a hand around the doorknob to unlock it with the key, the knob turned easily. Maybe his mother had done little to close up the park, but she would have locked the front door for sure. The Shepherd walked beside him cautiously when he opened the front door and stepped quietly inside.
His mother had confirmed that morning that she'd made sure the electric heat was turned to a minimum safe temperature that would prevent the pipes from freezing in September. Yet the house felt cozy and warm. And it looks lived in. Dishes in the drainer...from supper last night? Book--one of the old classics Mom and Dad love--next to the sofa in front of the wood burning stove in the living room, where we used to gather at night and play board games.
John nudged open the door of the one bedroom that was downstairs. While the bed was neatly made, there was the impression of a head on one of the pillows. Someone had been sleeping here.
He moved out and entered the small bathroom with the free-standing shower, toilet and sink. A towel hung next to the shower--it was dry, as if waiting to be used. He opened the medicine cabinet and saw a toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste and lotion, a comb, and feminine products. Okay, so the squatter is a woman. All "mini" items that could have come from the camp store. Probably did. Inside the shower, he saw the same familiar items--travel-sized shampoo, conditioner, and a bar of soap.
Still on cat feet, John started up the staircase toward the three bedrooms upstairs. Strange. After I left, Mom said she and Dad slept in the bedroom downstairs.They closed the door at the bottom of the stairs and blocked up the crack beneath so the cold air couldn't get through, and they stopped heating the upstairs for the winter. He heard the soft whisper of Robert's paws on the stairs behind him and the dog sniffed the whole time. At the top, John couldn't avoid the creaking. No matter where he stepped, he'd learned there was no escaping that inevitable creak.
He stalled on the landing. Like he expected, the upstairs was significantly colder than the rest of the house had been. One door on the second floor was open a crack, and Robert disappeared soundlessly into it after sniffing the hallway runner. John didn't have time to call him back. So much for sneaking up on this squatter.
Sighing in frustration, he crept his way to the door and peeked his head around it. Robert stood in the room, licking the hand of a small woman huddled in the corner of the room, hands over ears, shivering and singing an old hymn, obviously fatigued from doing so, under her breath. John knew his dad's dog--no way would Robert befriend a stranger, certainly not in this affectionate way. It was obvious the canine had recognized the scent of the woman long before he came upon her up here.
The woman jumped to her feet, seeing John. Her eyes were wide open in shock. With no warning whatsoever, she rushed at him and threw herself full-body into his arms. She sounded like she was sobbing when she exclaimed, "You're alive!"
John had no idea what was going on. Why had she been huddled in the corner of the room with her hands over her ears? She'd seemed deathly afraid at first--before she'd launched herself into his arms. Had she heard him drive up, seen or heard him walking around the house? Maybe, but he couldn't shake the feeling that she'd been expecting someone or something else entirely.
Who was this person? Who did she think he was?
Even with a dozen questions circling his head, he became aware of the slight, shivering form of the woman in his arms. She was a good head shorter than him and slim as a sprite. Yet he couldn't escape the fact that she was a woman and she had all the curves of one. He'd instinctively grabbed her when she flew at him, and he felt the hourglass shape of her waist, the slight curve of feminine hips, and a swell of breasts beneath the too-large clothes he'd glimpsed.
Swallowing an emotion he didn't want to experience, he reached up to cradle the head covered in long, thick, blondish-black hair. Then he drew back to look at the waif-ish face.
Just as lightning quick as she'd come at him before, her expression changed now and she fumbled for a moment before she backed off with a flare gun held tightly before her--trained straight at his chest.
Never before had he seen a face more terrified, more closed-off, more contradictorily sweet as this young woman's. Her full bottom lip was trembling as she said wildly, "You're not him. I thought you were him."
"Him who?" John had no doubt that if he didn't speak softly and reassuringly, she'd start screaming bloody murder in a second. Very carefully, he put his hands up to pacify her.
"The man... the one who was here before. He went up on the mountain, and he didn't come back. I couldn't find him."
"My father? You knew my father?"
She didn't respond, only looked at him with confused, scared eyes. "He looked like you...but not."
"He was tall and wide like you. I thought you were him. That's the only reason. But you're not him."
John took after his mother with deeply bronze skin, dark hair and forest green eyes, but he was six foot and muscular like his father. At first sight, he supposed someone could mistake him for his old man. "I'm related to him. Who are you? How do you know my dad?"
She shook her head, waving the flare gun. "Don't come any closer."
Though he hadn't moved in her direction even one step, John tried to keep himself from laughing. "Look, lady, everything's okay. I wanna know why you're staying here, of course, but I promise I'm not gonna hurt you. The dog won't hurt you either. Obviously he's a pushover."
She shook her head, murmuring in a distracted tone, "He's too well-trained. Whatever David told him to do, he did."
"You obviously know my dad and his dog," John said, beginning to wonder again what exactly was going on here. How long had she been here? Before September, the dog had lived his whole life in this park. He knew every square inch. He knew all the regulars who came here. Obviously he knew this woman... and John's dad had known her, too. How? John couldn't get himself to believe anything lascivious and not simply because this woman was clearly young. Like most Kotter men, his old man had spent most of his life alone. When he'd met Natalia, he'd realized why no other woman appealed to him. She was quite simply the only one for him. But that didn't answer the question of how this squatter knew his old man.
Instead of responding, she looked at him again with her mouth open. Then she swallowed harshly, her throat sounding bone dry in the frigid air. "Did you hear it?"
John shook his head, doubly confused. "Hear what?"
Is she up here in the bitter cold, hiding because she heard something that scared her--not my presence? Something else? Who else could be screaming? This place is deserted.
Frowning, John asked, "You mean the wind?" It'd been bad last night and early this morning.
"It was coming from the mountain," the woman said softly, "where your father disappeared."
John took a couple steps closer to her. Instantly, she jabbed the flare gun at him. "Look, honey, can we put that down? You don't even have a flare in it. You couldn't hurt me if you tried."
He grinned without the slightest bit of intimidation, reaching his hand harmlessly toward her. "The wind at the base of the mountain can sound like screaming. But it was just the wind, if that's what spooked you. There's a storm coming, so it probably sounds worse."
She closed her eyes, letting him take the flare gun out of her hands. Then she wrapped her arms around her head as if she was trying to block out the sound. "It wouldn't stop. It wasn't like before, like other times. It was...horrible. I thought... Evil..."
John tucked the empty flare gun that he knew she'd taken from the gatehouse into his belt. "Everything's okay. My name's John Kotter. My family owns this park, the campground, this house."
This close up, he couldn't fail to notice just how small and frightened she look. Even if he wanted to be mad at her for taking over the house like it was her own, he couldn't get himself to be. While he knew nothing about her, she didn't look the type to be bent on anything criminal. She'd clearly been through a lot. Maybe she'd been in trouble and down on her luck and his father had befriended her. It was something the old man would do. He wondered if his mother knew this person. She hadn't mentioned her.
John leaned forward and offered her his hand. She stared at it like he'd offered her a rattlesnake. "What's your name, honey?"
She swallowed hard again, her breath sounding shaky when she sank to the bed behind her and drew her knees up to her front. "You're really David's son? I've never seen you before."
"I just moved back to Bloodmoon Cove recently."
Tentatively, because he continued to hold out his hand toward her, she offered her doll-like one to him. "I'm...I'm Esmerelda ...um, Dumas."
John remembered the book he'd seen downstairs on the living room table. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Okay, she's not ready to get too friendly. Closing his large hand around hers, he shook, grinning a little wider this time to show her she hadn't really fooled him, but he'd go along for now. "That's a mouthful, honey. Do you mind if I call you Esme?"
He wasn't prepared for the electricity in her sweet, small smile or the jolt that ran through him when they touched in a simple handshake. Her hands were like ice. But her skin was silky smooth and alive in a way that made him want to continue holding her. For a long minute in which he couldn't catch his breath, he recalled the way she'd flown at him when he stepped into the room. She'd seemed relieved to see him. His heart ached for some reason he couldn't define. The feel of her, small and trembling...a woman, dear God, what a woman... in his arms swept over him as if he was holding her again.
"Esme. I like that. Yes, please call me Esme."
Somehow John remembered to breathe and the process of inhaling and exhaling made him feel slightly dizzy. She'd clearly fallen on hard times. Her dark blond hair had been raggedly cut, pulled back in a messy ponytail away from her strangely beautiful face. With no bangs, the way her hair framed her tiny face made her seem more fragile and even whimsical. If she'd told him she was really a fairy from some magical woods nearby, he would have been hard-pressed to dispute her. Everything about her fit that description. Her light brown eyes, so child-like without a hint of makeup, nevertheless belonged to a grown woman who clearly retained a semblance of innocence he'd never seen before. Her abrupt vulnerability tugged at him. She seemed shy and unsure of herself, even a little afraid now. He couldn't help noticing how golden her skin was in glimpses beneath the far too large clothing she wore. Her strong, white teeth were framed by full lips that trembled slightly. Her neck seemed almost too long and narrow for her small, woman's body. Who was this waif?
Still holding her hand, he drew her gently to her feet. Even in that small contact, he could feel how featherweight she was. Baggy pants topped with his father's heavy-duty ranger jacket--the same kind John was wearing--showed just how little she'd had to live on alone here. She was all but drowning. How long had she been here? Long before his dad's disappearance--that was about all he could guess. "Esme it is. So, Esme, what are you doing here?"
Her eyes opened impossibly wider. "I'm sorry. I didn't have any place else to go. And when everyone left..."
First true thing you've said, honey?
"I had the feeling." He reluctantly withdrew from the handshake and put his tingling hand in his pocket. While he wasn't sure about feeling such sympathy just because she looked like such a tiny wisp, he was glad there'd been plenty of firewood in the shed to keep the house warm, that the supplies at the trading post store hadn't run out on her.
She gave him a pleading, tentative look. "I'm...um, John, I promise that I paid for everything I took. Go ahead and check the campground store. There was a price list in the desk behind the counter, and I included tax every time. I also kept an inventory of what I took, in case you needed it. The money is in the cash register."
So she'd broken into the store or found the key. Whether or not she'd paid would be easy to find out. His mother had taken all the money out of the store in September. She'd also removed the perishables, so whatever Esme was living on couldn't be fresh. About all he could fathom was that she hadn't starved to death.
"You're also the one who's been keeping the roads clear?" he asked.
"I know there's no reason for you to believe this, John, but I love this park. I know it by heart. I've explored the grounds and some of the mountain last summer--as much as was possible on foot. I've been trying to fix things around here, maintain them and take care of them. Keeping the roads clear was part of it. I cleaned up the campground in October, before winter hit. It was a mess. I keep wildlife away from the buildings and I've made sure the pipes haven't burst. I don't have a lot to do around here by myself, like you can imagine, and keeping things up seemed like the least I could do. I started a compost pile and that really helps me cut down on trash, though I waste little."
She'd evidently wanted to say all this for a long time, so he just let her go.
"I'll pay you. For whatever...whatever I've used. The house, electricity, water usage. I needed it. I really wanted to make sure the place was well-taken care of. It's such a beautiful park. So wide open, full of nature and wonder. Please..." She swallowed harshly. "Don't send me away."
"How long have you been here, Esme?" John asked, uncomfortable with how easily he believed every word she said. Based on the maintenance he'd observed thus far, she loved this park almost as much as his family always had. She took care of it as if it was her own, but also respected the fact that it wasn't hers.
"I came, um, last year. Summer. But..."
"My dad was here then."
She nodded. "With this dog."
So Dad knew about our friendly neighborhood squatter. How much did he know about her?
"I camped out in the woods, and...well, he was nice. Your dad was nice to me. I never met him officially. I only know his name because I heard people say it. But he...well, he let me stay. Without paying."
Maybe Dad knew she was camping in the woods. Figured she couldn't pay and wasn't hurting anybody. Maybe he even left food out for her.
"I'm sorry, but after it got cold and the place was deserted, I couldn't leave. I realized how much I'd come to love this place. I can't explain it, but something about it feels familiar to me, like it's home. I thought if I took care of it, maybe nobody would mind."
Her big eyes were looking at him with so much hope, he could understand what had motivated his dad to overlook her infractions, to help her when he could. Finding someone who loved this place as much as he had when he was a kid wouldn't be easy. Sure, he could probably get some kid from town to come out and help him clean up, but it wouldn't be the same. Esme was what this park needed.
I must be crazy. But I was raised to give people chances. To help others whenever I can. "Look, I have to get this place in shape for the camping season in June. You've done a good job of keeping it maintained so far. I can tell you care about the park. What would you think about a job here?"
She blinked rapidly. She couldn't be any more surprised than he was at the offer. "A job?"
"Yeah. Getting it ready for campers, then when the season starts we'll need a campground host. I'm not sure yet at this point how big of a job it'll be. I can't pay you much."
Her face scrunched as she frowned. "But...is that why you came here? Because you need this house now? You need to move in?"
John shook his head. "No. My mom needs me around right now. She's got her hands full with taking care of my grandpa and his osteoarthritis, and...I don't know. Since Dad died, I worry about her. She's not coping well. She's just going through the motions. She prefers to be in town and wants me to stay there with her and Granddad for awhile."
"Wait... Your dad died?" Devastation claimed her expression.
"You didn't know? You said he disappeared."
"He went up the mountain and he didn't come back. The police came..."
Feeling his throat tighten, John offered softly, "This mountain has claimed many lives."
"I looked for him," she burst out, sounding like she couldn't or wouldn't believe. "I looked everywhere. But then I thought...I thought maybe that's what he usually did in the winter. Winterized it. Deserted the place. I didn't want to believe he was...dead. I wanted to believe he came off the mountain... and went home." Tears filled her eyes, and she sat heavily on the bed again.
John watched her in mute surprise. She'd said she hadn't officially met his father, and yet her emotional reaction was deep. John had suspected coming back here, a place he associated with his old man, would affect him, too. He couldn't say if he'd really dealt with his loss. Being away, wrapping up his life in Arizona the past nine months, had kept him from feeling the grief he was afraid to give in to. In some ways, he'd been grateful that his life had had other complications. In the end, even those had left behind the bitter remorse of yet another selfish mistake, more bad memories and recriminations he'd somehow have to life with. John suspected without seeing his father's body, finding it so they could have some closure that he was truly gone, he'd have as much trouble accepting his death as his mom was having.
"Look, you can stay here. Like I said, I can't pay you much, but this house can sure be part of the package."
She nodded, sniffing as she visibly tried to get hold of herself. "I'd love a job here. I'm willing to learn anything I need to. I've ready every book I could get my hands on about parks, wildlife preservation, plants, insects, first aid... You name it. There isn't a paper in this entire park I haven't read through from start to finish."
His old man had been a pack rat. If Esme had been desperate for reading material, the way she implied, the gatehouse office would certainly have provided her with all she needed. "About all I can think of then is that my mom's a registered nurse. She teaches first aid and CPR at the hospital in town. She can help you get your EMT certification. That'll take a few months, but the training is something you'll find real useful out here. The rest of your knowledge is good, too, and might help us expand into some programs during the summer. Mostly, you'd be keeping the campground clean, checking in campers, working in the store when you can."
"I can do all that. I don't know how I'd pay for the EMT course. I assume it costs money. I have a little..."
John shook his head. "Don't worry about that. Bloodmoon Cove needs EMT's. The course won't cost you anything but time."
"A few weeks of intensive on-the-job training here at the campground will be required, and you'll need to read all the SOP manuals in the office--"
"Standard Operative Procedures." She nodded. "Yes, I've already read them. I read everything in the park office. More than once." After a second, she seemed to realize, "I didn't steal anything. The keys for everything were hanging here in that case near the front door downstairs."
The spare park keys, carefully labeled under hooks. If his mother had locked the house, she'd done it with Esme inside.
John found he wasn't surprised to hear that this woman was so keen on learning everything she could. If she'd read all the boring files and manuals in the office multiple times, she'd been serious about digesting the information, filing it in her brain whenever she'd need the information. He'd met few people as interested and eager as Esme seemed to be about what others might consider dry and boring. He couldn't help wondering if life had taught her to become hard and cynical. She'd obviously been afraid of him after she realized he wasn't his father. But she didn't seem scared anymore--just desperate to prove her worth here. He wondered how old she was. She could have passed for eighteen, but he suspected she was older. Something about her insisted she wasn't a child in any way.
"John, how do you think your dad died?"
He shook his head, not prepared for the question. "He went missing while he was supposed to be hiking on the mountain. The backcountry permit he filled out stated he'd been heading toward Spirit Peak and would return by noon that day. My mom called the sheriff when she got home--here at the campground host house--and found the permit in the office still not filed away with a return time of six that evening. After multiple searches of the mountain, his body was never found. The sheriff filed a report saying he tumbled from one of the many treacherous cliffs, possibly after a heart attack precipitated the fall."
"But you don't believe that?" Esme guessed. One of her hands was fingering a chain around her neck. The rest of the necklace was hidden under her shirt.
John shrugged. "My dad believed in filling out permits, using the buddy system. But he went alone that day. Didn't even take Robert with him. That wasn't like him. I don't know what convinced him to go up there by himself. I can't imagine. When we were kids, he drilled it into me and my cousin Twyla that we never went up on the mountain without a buddy, without filling out the necessary paperwork for those down here if we didn't come back."
"Twyla," Esme murmured under her breath, then glanced up at him. "Is Robert the name of this dog?"
John nodded. "He never went anywhere without 'his brother' as he called him. On that subject, you said you explored the mountain this past summer? That you searched there for my father?"
He could see she was guilty before she admitted, "Yes."
"That's incredibly dangerous. You can't go up there by yourself. The mountain is treacherous."
"I was fine. But I didn't find him."
"Well, you can't do that again. You have to tell someone down here at the base exactly where you're going and you need to fill out a backcountry permit with a general idea of where you're heading and your return date or time. Above all, you need a hiking buddy. There's no two ways about that, Esme. It's for your own good. If you're gonna work here, it's always safety first. Promise me." John wasn't sure why, but the idea of this frail woman hiking alone on a mountain as dangerous as Bloodmoon scared him spitless. He didn't like it one iota.
There was no guile in her expression when she agreed, "Okay. I promise. I want to work here."
Is that the only reason you're agreeing? Do you know why my dad went up there by himself, without his dog? Even asking himself the questions, he couldn't suspect her of any wrongdoing in his dad's death. But maybe she knew more than she was saying.
* * * *
His cell phone rang, startling both of them. As he worked it out of his belt, he inclined his head toward the door. "Let's go downstairs where it's warm."
Unnecessarily, she told him she was freezing, then led the way out of the room and down the stairs. John closed the lower door behind them while he answered the call.
"John?" a familiar voice--even after all these years--asked. "Sheriff Mecham. Your mom said you'd be out at the park."
"I am," John confirmed, slightly hesitant. He recalled almost subconsciously that his cousin Twyla and Gray Mecham had been close friends most of their lives. That might have become more if her parents hadn't decided to move out of Bloodmoon Cove.
"Well, that's good. We'll need your help most of all."
"What's going on?"
"We got a call this morning from the youth camp not far from there that a kid is missing."
The camp had been a fixture in Bloodmoon Cove for as long as John could remember. Most of the kids in town had hung out there at one point or another. "You're kidding?" Larry Broucher was the human equivalent of a hawk. John knew that best of all. He'd dated the man's daughter through most of high school. It was a miracle he and Cara-Marie had ever gotten out from under his watchful eyes.
"Nope. Broucher took a group out for a hike in the early afternoon yesterday. They use the buddy system, as you know, but four of the boys must've gotten separated from the group. Late that afternoon, three of 'em returned to the youth camp and said they'd gone off the trail, went for a hike up the mountain on their own. I've been laying down the law about that since your dad's disappearance."
John paused only for an instant, then he shook off the heavy shroud of grief so intertwined with confusion about the whole thing. "How? Not sure how much of the mountain is even passable this time of the year." Nature had laid down its own law about that. Without specialized equipment, the mountain was all but off-bounds in the dead of winter. With the signs of spring thaw, it might have been possible though.
"Must've been enough."
"Who's the missing boy?"
John knew the last name well. He'd gone to school with Troy's dad. The guy had been trouble and enjoyed causing more than his fair share in the park. Like his old man before him, he frequently sent his kids to the youth camp near the park on the weekend.
"Look, John, we've got some local volunteers gathered up to help the sheriff's department and our dogs to search for the boy, but it sure would be a big help if you went along. You know that area better than anybody except maybe your granddad....and your father did."
"Do the boys who came back know which way they went up the mountain?"
Gray paused for a long moment. "They got some idea, but mostly I think they're afraid of trouble at this point. They're not talkin' much. I do have to tell you, John, that the general direction the boys indicated is near Spirit Peak."
Where Dad was supposed to be hiking the day he went missing. Where so many hikers meet an untimely end. "Okay. I'd be happy to help."
"Thanks, John. We're headin' to the youth camp now. Meet us there in a half hour or so, if possible."
John had followed Esme into the kitchen. Still drowning in his dad's coat, she was making a pot of instant oatmeal when he hung up. Also on one of the unlit burners was a covered bread pan. He wondered what she looked like wearing clothes that fit her. While the jacket had obviously belonged to his father--the winter one that'd been stored here in the closet--with his name stitched on it, he couldn't guess where she might have gotten the rest of her clothes. She wore camel-colored slacks that might have been a man's or a woman's and a heavy, shapeless sweater made out of, he guessed, wool. The socks were also non-descript and rolled many times to stay in place.
She turned to look over her puffy shoulder at him. "That sounded serious. What's going on?"
"Sheriff said some boys went for an ill-advised hike up the mountain yesterday. One of 'em didn't come back."
A ghost of devastation filled her eyes. "Oh, no. Are you going to search for him?"
"Yeah, with the sheriff's department, their dogs and some volunteers...though there might not be much we can do if the boys don't know exactly where it was they hiked. Most of the mountain's impassible this time of year. And if they really were near Spirit Peak..." There were a lot of legends, most of them spread by the Mino-Miskwi tribe, but John had never been able to dispute them. There really was something unearthly strange about that area of the mountain. He'd been over every inch of the mountain--mostly with Twyla. The legend that there was a place in the gorge that hid but sometimes revealed itself...he'd seen it himself. But then when he'd searched for it later, countless times, he hadn't been able to find it again. He'd never gotten a good look at the clearing--it'd been getting dark and he'd known he and Twyla had to be off the mountain before dusk. He only knew that he'd never forget the waterfall and the total lack of life surrounding it. There hadn't been so much as a blade of grass or a pesky mosquito to be found. Both he and his cousin had felt something not human in that place.
"I can help search," Esme said. "I know the area, too."
She smiled. "Do you want some oatmeal?"
He'd planned to have a good breakfast at the only diner in town on his way back to his mom's. Now he wouldn't have that opportunity. "Sure. We're meeting at the youth camp in a half hour."
When he moved to get bowls and utensils, feeling like the house was hers, not his family's, she turned to put a pot holder down, then sat the pan on the table. "I ran out of sugar a few months ago," she admitted, spooning canned apple pie filling over the large bowl she'd ladled out for herself.
Wary now, John scooped some of the oatmeal into his own bowl--not quite as much as she'd taken, then took a tentative spoonful of the filling. He'd had oatmeal with brown sugar, maple syrup, and, back when Grandma Grace was alive, trail mix. He couldn't imagine eating it with anything else. The apple pie filling was cold and gel-like, yet he realized it was actually pretty good after he got over his first dread.
"You've really had to make do here, haven't you? What have you been eating besides oatmeal?" he asked.
"I've learned how to make bread. It took me a week to figure out what that was in the stoneware crock in the fridge."
John gaped, then laughed. "Gran's sourdough starter. Dad was always the one to keep it going, so I suppose Mom didn't give it a thought when she cleared out of here."
"I woke it up and I have something with bread every day now. This loaf should be ready soon. That's the one thing the camp store has lots of. Flour. I've had to get creative with all the other stuff in the stock room, most of it canned. But I can't complain at all. I have three square meals a day. That's like a dream come true in itself."
When she trailed off awkwardly, he wanted to ask a dozen questions but couldn't get himself to utter one. She wasn't looking at him, focusing on savoring the oatmeal before her. "I can make coffee if you want."
"Maybe after we get back." He still had a full travel mug in his truck.
Robert suddenly began barking at something in a corner between the wall and John's grandmother's China hutch. Esme suddenly leaped up. She crouched, pushing Robert aside. "Don't hurt her."
John called his dog off. Robert came and sat obediently at his side. "Hurt who?"
Esme turned with her face buried in the long, flowing fur of the fattest orange and yellow tabby John had ever seen. The cat was clinging to her, seeking protection from the big, bad dog in the room. "Topaz."
"Let me guess. Some camper left her behind?"
Esme shrugged, averting her gaze at the same time. "She started showing up on the porch right after this place was deserted, and I fell in love with her. She's so beautiful and sweet." She carried the hefty pet over to him, stroking the silken fur.
John reached into the mass, seeing a glint of faux turquoise gems. Her collar indeed claimed the fat cat's name was Topaz. When he turned it over, he saw an address engraved there in tiny letters. "Did you try contacting her owners?" he asked quietly.
"I didn't know how."
"Their contact information is printed here."
"I didn't know how to get in touch with them. Not from this place."
John wondered if she hadn't wanted to be completely alone here. He couldn't blame her. Silently, he watched her fill a bowl with dry dog food from the camp store. "The store ran out of cat food," she told him. "Topaz doesn't seem to mind."
Apparently neither did Robert. After Esme sat again and resumed her breakfast, Robert edged his way over to the full bowl and started crunching on the bits with the cat. The unlikely pair ate companionably, as much as John and Esme did. When he thanked her for breakfast, she instantly started shaking her head. "It wasn't mine. It's yours..."
"You paid for it, right? It's all yours. We better make our way to the youth camp."
When he stood and pulled on his hat and gloves again, she slipped on a pair of boots that John would have bet belonged to his old man. She must have stuffed towels into the toes to get them to stay on because her feet were as small as the rest of her. Her gloves and hat were probably from the overflowing lost and found box.
"What do you know about Bloodmoon Mountain?" she asked, following him and Robert outside to his truck.
"Called a mountain," he started, pulling open the passenger's door for her, "but it's just a massive hill that has pretty much everything that you associate with a mountain: streams, dense vegetation, trees, peaks, gorges, waterfalls, rolling hills, standing rocks, ridges, cliffs, and a remote high point outcropping."
"Spirit Peak?" Esme guessed, trying to climb into the cab with obvious difficulty. John finally put his hands around the area he guessed her waist was and lifted her up into the seat.
When Esme turned to him, her cheeks were bright red.
"Spirit Peak's a place were a lot of hikers have gone missing over the years, Esme. You should never go there alone. Sometimes the bodies are found. Usually not."
If her eyes were mirrors for his thoughts, he would have read, "Like your dad's" in hers. He cringed against the raw pain that flared inside him.
"I don't like it there anyway," Esme said quietly. "It's the only place I don't like around here. The wind howls there like..."
John raised an eyebrow. "Like all the demons in hell are amassing at the border for a mass escape?"
She nodded again, her expression soft enough to convince him she wanted to ease the pain he couldn't seem to hide. "But you can see practically the entire town from there."
He didn't like the idea of her trekking up there by herself, no one knowing where she was going or when she'd come back. "Don't go there alone. Ever again. You promised."
"Buddy system. I got it."
"If you're gonna be a park ranger, you have to set an example, follow the rules and regulations. They're there for a reason."
She seemed to sit up straighter when she quoted, "'To protect the land and wildlife from the people, protect the people from the land and wildlife, and protect the people from the people.'"
John couldn't help grinning. "Guess you weren't kidding about readin' everything in that office."
She offered a shy smile. "This mountain, John...I've never even imagined anything like it. I've seen mountains in books, but this is the most beautiful. The most haunting. It would be unforgettable to me now."
She'd chosen the very words he would have used. John felt something inside him respond to her words. He'd seen bigger, more impressive, steeper, sprawling, sloping mountains with his own eyes. But Bloodmoon Mountain had captivated him all his life. It was the most beautiful place in the world to him, and he'd never been gladder to be home. This mountain had haunted him for so long. Since Twyla, he hadn't truly shared it with anyone either. Until now.
* * * *
Trusting someone, especially after all she'd been through, wasn't easy for her. Yet, inexplicably, the moment John Kotter had appeared in the upstairs bedroom of the cabin where she'd been secretly staying, she'd felt relieved and safe. Believing him to be the tall, muscular park ranger who, in his gentle, non-intimidating way, had befriended her since she came to the park, she'd trusted him implicitly. She still couldn't believe she'd thrown herself into his arms like that though. But when he hadn't come back from the mountain hike, when the park had filled with officials, she'd felt deep down he was dead. She hadn't wanted to believe that. So when she'd seen him in the doorway, she'd simply reacted in hopeful relief.
Even after she'd realized he wasn't David, everything about this man's demeanor had been calming, unrushed, rational and gentle. The fact that he hadn't reacted with anger at finding she'd invaded his family property after his poor father's disappearance still made her shake her head in wonder. What kind of person was so accepting and generous? John had even offered her a job. He'd offered her exactly what she'd been praying for without hope for the last nine months. Even still, the old nightmare went through her head. "Don't run. Don't talk. Don't tell anyone. If you do, you'll die. They'll put you back in a cage. I've made sure of that."
Esme glanced over at John in the cab of the truck once she came back from activating the gate, then closing it. He had dark, wavy hair, a rugged tan face that told her as much as his lean, muscular frame did that he spent a lot of time outdoors, even in the winter, and deeply green eyes, like a sage leaf. Those kind eyes had eased the panic that'd been growing inside her for uncountable hours last night.
That screaming. What was it? No, not the wind. She'd been here in the park for more than a year. Even in the worst storms--whatever the season--she'd never heard the wind howl like that. John's description fit the supernatural sound perfectly: The shrieking had been like all the demons in hell amassing at the border, intent on escape. Like the unearthly shrieks of the Old Woman when she became possessed and wanted to destroy me... Along with that shrieking, Esme had heard a dog barking all night, too. Robert? But John had just come to the park that morning.
She'd initially been terrified when the German Shepherd had pranced into that upstairs bedroom and greeted her like an old friend--which they were. The dog had been her first friend in this place, but he hadn't always been friendly to her--not until John's father befriended her by leaving things out for her like food and clothing that she could wear but didn't truly fit. Somehow he'd realized she was alone, homeless, without a friend in the world and with very little to call her own. Even still, it'd taken her a very long time to truly trust him.
John was a lot younger and in better shape than his father had been, though David had also taken good care of himself. She wondered what it was about this man that was so different. Each time she glanced at him, her breath left her in a punched-in-the-gut impact. She found herself wondering if his hair felt as silky and soft as it looked when he took off his cap. It fell over his forehead, his ears, and down against his neck. He was so big and strong. Even his hands were like those of a giant compared to hers. That should have intimidated her, but she remembered too well how it'd felt to have him holding her. She'd felt safe for the first time since the eerie, howling wind had started last night. She'd felt sheltered. She'd experienced trust for another human being.
I've never been touched. Not like that. When strangers touch me, I pull away instantly. I feel like I've been wounded. I run. When the Old Woman brushed my hair...I was in terror the whole time. But I've read books where people touch. To touch another human being, to have someone touch me... Today I know for the first time that that's what pleasure is. I've never felt so alive in my life as when John held me, held my hand. When he looked down at me as if he wanted to wrap me up and save me from whatever threatened me. He probably does that for everyone--after all, I saw how kind his father was to everyone. But for me, I know now that I've never been truly alive before. I've only been existing. Surviving. Getting by. I know what it's like to be alive now. How will I ever go on now without feeling like this man makes me feel with a look, that adorable grin of his, with the smallest contact of his skin on mine?
She'd longed for the sight with another human since the place had been deserted in the fall last year. He was the first person to appear since the men had come and shut down the bathrooms and winterized the plumbing in the park. Like his father, John seemed to care about people in a way she'd never experienced. John had seemed concerned about her staying here alone, hiking the mountain by herself. She'd never had anyone care about her before until she'd come to this amazing place. The Old Woman hadn't cared. Deep down, Esme knew she'd only wanted to keep her hidden from the world. That wasn't concern or love. The Old Woman had wanted to hurt her.
Even though she believed John wouldn't hurt her, she couldn't prevent herself from being afraid. He could give her away. He could make her have to leave this place. One way or another, he could hurt her. Why did she suspect that would be worse than even the Old Woman's need to hurt her?
"Do people actually live up on the mountain?" she asked as they left the gatehouse in the distance. "I've seen houses."
"Yeah. Crazy people," John said with a laugh that wasn't completely real. "In winter, it storms more than not around here, especially all the way up there. Those people who live near the top must spend a fortune laying in supplies for the winter. It's dangerous to trust the weather. A blizzard could hit before they made it back home after stocking up. They're completely isolated up there, so they have to be self-sufficient. There are no roads up the mountain. Only trails. You can cross the lake on deep ice, but to get up there you need a snowmobile and snowtrack to make the trip up the mountain. So far it hasn't happened, but if any of 'em got sick or injured during the winter, we might not hear about it until spring. Electricity and phone cables aren't exactly reliable during bad weather. Personally, I think it's plain nuts to live there."
"I suppose. But some people like to be isolated."
He shrugged like he couldn't fathom that. She'd lived through it. The only contact she'd had in the world was the Old Woman. She'd hated the woman and yet sometimes she'd felt a strange joy at seeing her. She wondered if John had ever been completely alone in the world. Could anyone imagine what she'd been through?
She reached out to pet Robert's head, and he lowered it, eagerly accepting her love. She laughed, remembering the name of the dog.
"What?" John asked from behind the wheel.
"Robert is such a formal name for a dog."
John laughed himself, and she loved how it transformed his almost harshly masculine features. His teeth were brilliant white against the deep tan of his skin. "Okay, it probably is. It's a tradition in my family to name our dogs something old-fashioned and formal. We treat our dogs like members of the family. Brothers. The name is about respect. Robert's old man's name was Joseph, and his father before his was Edward. Before that, Charles."
"Aren't pets supposed to be named things like Snowball and Lassie and..."
His grin made a hole open up inside her so wide, she almost fell into it herself. "Why are you so nice?" she demanded, suddenly on the verge of tears. "Why was your dad? By rights, you should have had me arrested!"
John turned and blinked at her in surprise. "For what? Surviving? As far as I can see, you took care of the place. You didn't steal. You did what my family wasn't capable of at the time. We appreciate it. I do." His face looked tight, and she wondered if she was thinking about the loss of his father. "Besides, my parents taught me hospitality starts with Hebrews 13:2: 'Be sure to welcome strangers into your homes. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests without even knowing it.'"
"Calling me an angel stretches all credulity," she murmured. I'm far from it. I've committed murder. And if you knew that, there's no way you'd be so nice to me. "What is this camp we're going to? I mean, I suspected it was a youth camp."
"Bible camp. The couple who run it, Larry and Ethel Broucher, are good people." John paused for a long time as if something troubled him. His gaze never strayed from the road ahead. Then he continued, "It's been in their family for a long time. Unfortunately, if it's anything like when I was a kid, too many parents use the camp as a free babysitting service on the weekends. Even with volunteers, it's not easy for the Brouchers to watch all the kids that show up there at any given time."
"That's sad. Sounds like they're trying to do something good and people are taking advantage of them."
"Couldn't've put it better myself. What're you gonna do?"
A huge crowd of trucks had filled the parking lot once they passed through the open gate of the youth camp, including three or four police vehicles. Esme got out with John and Robert, following them to the man wearing a hat with a sheriff badge pinned to his brown jacket. Esme recognized him instantly. He'd been there when David didn't come down from the mountain. The man looked at her, then, thankfully, dismissed her, obviously thinking she was one of the volunteers. John shook the man's hand, saying, "Sheriff Mecham."
The official managed a smile that surprised Esme with its warmth. "It's been a while, John, but I don't think that kind of formality is warranted."
Did John seem a little taken aback by the welcome? Esme thought he did and wondered why.
"Okay, Gray," he managed more than a little warily.
Esme couldn't help feeling a little uncomfortable. She wasn't dressed for what she'd volunteered to do. The boots on her feet had belonged to John's father. She found them in a closet and she'd been stuffing socks inside them because they were at least four or five sizes too big for her. The hat she'd found in a box in the camp store nicely covering the terrible job she'd done of cutting her own hair a month ago. Getting it straight while looking in the mirror was nearly impossible. The gloves were too big. About the only thing she could say for herself was that she was clean.
Hanging back, she listened to John talk to the sheriff, then the parents of the missing boy, then the parents of the boys who'd run off and left their friend yesterday. The sheriff's men were handing out photographs of the missing boy with a description of what he'd been wearing: a bright red sweater, jeans, boots, ski parka, hat and mittens.
"Where are the boys?" John asked the sheriff.
The man pointed to three nervous-looking boys. Esme trailed behind John and the police chief over to them.
"What were you guys doing up there?" the sheriff asked. "You knew it was dangerous to go up there. I just gave the whole camp a lecture about setting foot on that mountain. So you must've had a reason for disobeying so blatantly. Were you looking for something?"
Esme couldn't imagine how the sheriff had guessed such a thing, but the assessment seemed to have broken the will of the boy with glasses. "He said the legend of Harrity Scaritty was true. He knew where to find his remains. We didn't know where we were goin' until he told us the whole story. We found the cave behind the waterfall in a gorge near Spirit Peak..."
The sheriff obviously lost interest in what he considered hokum. He moved away to begin organizing the search parties. John didn't waver and appeared to be listening avidly.
One of the other kids elbowed the boy who'd elicited the sheriff's disbelief, but he kept talking anyway. "It was just like Troy said: The entrance was blocked up with rocks, and it was surrounded with piles and piles of bones. Animals and humans. Troy got stuck in the opening, and just like that, Harrity's ghost dog showed up when Troy found the bones of Harrity. Troy started screaming and we... we couldn't get him out. We ran back to get help."
Esme frowned. Had they heard the preternatural sound of a dog barking last night, too? That was what had proceeded the unnatural screaming. Topaz had run for cover, and Esme's other pets had become disturbed as well. After a while, she couldn't stand the sound and she'd run upstairs to hide. Covering her ears hadn't blocked out the sound, nor had her instinctive, soothing singing.
"That's it?" John asked. "That's what happened? You didn't actually see anything?"
The boy swallowed hard. But a fearful look to either side at his friends shut him up, and he simply shook his head.
"You boys and Troy, you were as Boy Scout as it gets, weren't you?" John asked. "Troy knew what to do if he got separated from the group, didn't he? If he got lost?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess he would."
"He would have stayed put--at the place where you guys got separated--so we'd know where to look for him?"
None of the boys seemed to know what to answer. Esme suspected she knew why, too. If they were scared and ran, Troy probably did the same eventually. Unless he was hurt, the chances were that he fled, trying to follow his friends. The assumption then, if he wasn't hurt, had to be he'd gotten lost after attempting to catch up with the others. Hopefully he hadn't gone too far off the trail. There was still a chance they could find him.
"What about the area you were in?" John injected. "Can you describe it?"
Between the three boys, they had a lot to say about that area, but even Esme could tell from her experiences exploring the mountain that there were a dozen places just like it up on the mountain. There was no way to be sure exactly which one they'd gone to. When John concluded with, "But you think it was near Spirit Peak?" Sam offered, "Maybe. Troy was the leader. We just followed him."
"Sheriff said you didn't get back to the youth camp until about eight last night. How far do you think you hiked to that cave and back?"
"Miles at least."
The sheriff had given John a map of the surrounded forest land that the boys had used to show him approximately where they were on the trail when they'd separated from the group. The parents of the boys weren't allowing them to take part in the rescue, but the map would help the volunteer search party.
"Well, that gives us a starting place for finding Troy." John dug into the pocket of his jacket and came up with a small stack of business cards. He handed one to each boy. "If you guys think of anything else, I want you to call me. It could help us find your friend. This card has the satellite phone number at the park. I'll be carrying one of those phones will me all the time. I may not be in the gatehouse if you call there."
After that, the sheriff called them over, instructing the search parties which paths they would take.
"What is this legend of Harrity Scaritty?" Esme asked once they started out.
"It's an old urban legend around here. Started a hundred years. Harrity Kotter was my great-great grandfather. Dennis Mulvaney, Troy's great-great-great grandfather, tormented Harrity all through their school years, and even after. Halloween night, Dennis got drunk and got mean. He strung up Harrity's dog."
"Yeah. Strung him up between four trees and gutted him right in front of Harrity. Then they took Harrity up the mountain, stuffed him in a cave that was, according to the local Native Americans, the entryway to the realm of the dead or evil spirits, and left him there to rot. Nobody ever found the cave again. But folks around here believe Bloodmoon Cove Park is haunted by Harrity and his dog. They believe the whole mountain and town are haunted, and not just by Harrity. The Mino-Miskwi tribe practiced some dark magic back in those days. Maybe the haunted legends of Erie County are part of the tourist appeal in the summer. But the thing with 'Harrity Scaritty' is an urban legend."
"What exactly is the legend?"
"That if anyone ever found the cave and removed the rocks, they'd let Harrity's vengeful spirit out. Release him from the realms of evil to seek retribution for what was done to his dog and to him. The kids chant, 'Harrity Scaritty, on the mountain-side, in the realm of the dead, how will you escape, how will you be fed? With the living and the undead.' Legend is, Harrity's dog makes sure he's fed."
Esme frowned. Was it all just an urban legend? She'd heard a dog barking loudly--even over the wind last night. Nothing about that bark had been normal or natural. And that screaming... Bloodcurdling screams, like someone was trapped and in pain. She'd been terrified listening to it because she'd felt deep down that something bad was trying to break free. Something that wanted to kill, to take revenge.
"Don't run. Don't talk. Don't tell anyone. If you do, you'll die. I've made sure of that."
"So people have gone to look for the cave? Have you?" Esme asked.
John gave her a conceding look. "Yeah, okay. Me and my cousin looked for it a lot. We thought we found it once, but we never found it again. I guess that's part of the legend, too. That the cave hides when it wants to, reappears when it wants to as well."
"Maybe the story is true, John."
"My grandfather Patrick was too young to know the truth of what happened to his dad. And his mom, Sonja, didn't want to talk about that after she left the park."
"What if Troy found this hidden cave, a portal to an evil place? What if he released Harrity's spirit from the realm of the undead?"
John blinked at her, then laughed. "Come on."
"Don't you believe it's possible for the body to live without the spirit and vice versa? I do. It's more than possible. With all your local legends, how can you claim you've never seen or heard anything supernatural here?" Because what she'd heard last night had been nothing short of supernatural.
The sheriff called for him, and he seemed relieved to let her question go unanswered. Why? Because he had seen or felt something eerie before?
Though John didn't walk with her, she couldn't help but enjoy the hike despite the icy temperature and her uncomfortable, ill-fitting garb. The darkness had passed and she'd escaped the horrifying screams. She was truly free. Besides, John had welcomed her. How often had she worried about what would happen when spring and summer rolled around? She'd survived in the woods most of last summer, but she'd worried she would be caught sooner or later. Someone would ask her to leave. Where could she go?
I can't explain why this place is so familiar to me, it's like home in a way that can't be possible. I knew as soon as I looked at a map after escaping the Old Woman that Bloodmoon Cove was the place I had to go. When I got here, I understood why. It felt right to be here. I actually believed I'd been here before. And when John said that name Twyla... No, it's impossible. I know nothing about who I am and where I come from. All I remember is the Old Woman, and then escaping her finally. But this place is my home and I never, ever want to leave it. What if the Old Woman finds me or someone else finds me just like she warned me, and I'm sent back to that cage? I can't run. I can't talk. I can't tell anyone. If I keep my secrets, maybe, just maybe, I can stay here.
John had welcomed her, given her a job and a place to live. She could stay openly. This was her dream come true. As she had for the past year since she'd been free, even when the darkness closed in again and threatened to swallow her whole, she'd learned to accept happiness wherever she found it.